Graham has big stake in Thursday's 9/11 report
By MARY JACOBY and BILL ADAIR
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 22, 2003
WASHINGTON - Furiously rubbing sticks together in the political wilderness, the Democratic presidential candidates have finally sparked an issue with potential: President Bush's embrace of dubious intelligence about Iraq's efforts to assemble nuclear weapons.
Such national security issues will remain urgent this week, when a congressional investigation that was co-chaired by Sen. Bob Graham releases newly declassified findings about intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Although the nearly 900-page report was completed last December, only a summary of its findings was released at that time. More detail will be unveiled in a news conference slated for Thursday.
Large portions of the report remain classified, however, including a section on Saudi Arabian involvement in the attacks. But congressional aides who have been briefed on it say it will add important details about how the government repeatedly missed clues and opportunities to stop the attacks.
The report will also describe more fully what Bush knew and when, aides say. It is already known, for example, that intelligence officials briefed the president shortly before the attacks on al-Qaida's plans for an assault on American soil and the terrorist network's interest in using airplanes as weapons. The report will elaborate.
Although all nine of the Democratic presidential contenders will be free to mine the report for lines of attack, Graham has the most at stake politically. The Florida Democrat has repeatedly charged Bush with brushing off the more serious threat from the al-Qaida terrorist network to pursue an ill-conceived war against Iraq.
He has even said that Bush would face impeachment if congressional Republicans applied the same standards of truthfulness to him as they did to President Bill Clinton.
Other candidates - notably Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts - also have questioned Bush's credibility and wisdom. In a speech in New York last week, Kerry even accused the administration of throwing up roadblocks to Sept. 11 investigations by Congress and an independent commission.
"It is time for a president who will face the truth and tell the truth," Kerry said. "And that truth is that the Bush administration has stalled the 9/11 investigations instead of speeding it, forcing us to ask how can we prevent the next attack if we don't really know the facts about the last one?"
So not only does Graham not own the Sept. 11 issue, he has also failed so far to get noticeable traction from it, observers say.
"Overall, 9/11 is not that great an issue for the Democrats, because people think Bush handled it very well," said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University who specializes in national security issues.
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington agreed. But Hess did think Graham would get a short-term bounce from publicity over the report.
"He'll be the one on the weekend talk shows and Meet the Press. This is his moment to look presidential," Hess said.
However, to set off a political furor, the report will have to have some sort of "smoking gun" linking Bush directly to the failure to prevent the attacks, observers said. Few expect that, given the bipartisan makeup of the panel and the White House's ability to control the information that is released.
But if there is a smoking gun, not just Graham will benefit, analysts say.
"If there's something in it that's a big deal that you can pin on the Bush administration, then probably all Democrats will lay some claim to it," said Thomas Donnelly, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Speaking to reporters on the campaign trail on Concord, N.H., last week, Graham warned the report will have "a lot of blank pages" that remain classified.
"Some of the most important disclosures to the American people are going to be denied to the American people," Graham said.
Still, he added there would be "much good information, including several new pieces of information."
As the only presidential candidate serving in Congress who voted against an invasion of Iraq, Graham is in a unique position to exploit growing antiwar sentiment. He has consistently discounted Bush's claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein posed the same immediate threat to Americans as the elusive Osama bin Laden - a position that looks increasingly prescient as the U.S. military continues to search for weapons of mass destruction in postwar Iraq.
But Kerry, despite having voted to authorize war, has worked hard to dominate the national security issue. In his New York speech, the Vietnam War veteran said the administration hyped the Iraq threat, failed to plan for peacekeeping and now suffers a "gap in credibility."
Other candidates don't appear to see much political opportunity in the report.
Sen. John Edwards, for one, sits on the intelligence committee and has had access to the full classified version. But his campaign has focused more on Bush's economic record and what the North Carolinian calls the president's elitist values.
"He will be very interested in the results to see what we can glean from their findings and to ensure that this doesn't happen again," said Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri.
But unlike Graham, who has set aside the afternoon of the report's expected unveiling to answer media questions, Edwards has no specific event planned in reaction, Palmieri said.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who worked on legislation creating a Homeland Security Department in the Senate, may also gain some political mileage from the report.
Both Dean and Lieberman put national security issues on the front burner of their campaigns by calling last week for director of central intelligence George Tenet to resign. Tenet took responsibility for the reference in Bush's January State of the Union speech to a discredited claim that Iraq was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons production in Africa.
Dean also told reporters in Iowa last week that it's possible "American soldiers died" in a war waged under "false pretenses."
However, Lieberman said while campaigning in New Hampshire last week that voters have not asked him about the intelligence controversy. "What they are most interested and anxious about are their jobs and their economic security," he told reporters.
But the congressional report could keep alive questions about whether the administration has misled the American people. Appearing Sunday on Face the Nation, Graham tried to exploit such worries by noting news reports of Vice President Dick Cheney's personal interest in the Iraq-Niger claim.
"The vice president is the one who went to the CIA on several occasions. He asked specifically for additional information on the Niger-Iraq connection," Graham said. "You cannot tell me that the vice president didn't receive the same report (that the claim was fabricated) that the CIA received, and that the vice president didn't communicate that report to the president."
Yet Dean, as a Washington outsider, may be in the best position to exploit the administration's decision to shield information about Saudi complicity in the attacks, said Steve Weber, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
"The United States is in one of these really dirty alliances. It's a difficult, messy dirty alliance that we maintain obviously for the oil," Weber said, adding that Republican as well as Democratic administrations have done so. "I could see someone like Dean saying, "Until we deal with the underlying energy issue, we can't deal with the problem' " of Saudi funding of anti-Western mosques and Islamic schools.
Graham, meanwhile, is the only candidate to have raised an issue that still deeply angers the left: the Republican-led impeachment of Clinton.
"This is clearly more serious" than Clinton lying about a sexual relationship, Graham told reporters last week. "This goes more to responsibility in the office of president as opposed to personal, consensual relationships. If, in fact, we went to war on false pretenses, that is a very, very serious charge."
Graham has made clear, however, that he believes the remedy against Bush is not impeachment but his removal by voters from office in next year's election. Besides, Graham has said, a Republican-led Congress would not attempt to remove a president of its own party.
So while controversies simmer, it's not clear further revelations about government failures to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks will offer Democrats the anti-Bush political conflagration they seek.
"As a country we've been thrashing through these issues for some time," the American Enterprise Institute's Donnelly said. "The mistakes, such as they were, are diffused generally across the government. You need an institution or a person to pin the tail on for it to be controversial."
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